8] Then Mordecai prayed to God, calling to remembrance all the works of God… 17] “Hear my prayer and have mercy upon your inheritance; turn our mourning into feasting that we may live and sing praise to your name, O God; do not destroy the lips of those who praise you.”
If you know the book of Esther well, these verses should surprise you. After all, the Megillah that we read on Purim is famous for never mentioning God explicitly. Though sometimes the characters seem to allude to a higher power, the Divine is noticeable by its absence.
These verses are not from our version of the Esther story, but from the Greek additions, not considered canon in Jewish tradition. The author of these extra verses seems to have been very perturbed that none of the heroes of Esther ever pray to God, never even mention God, and so he adds in a prayer for Mordechai, and another for Esther. You can read about the changes in the apocryphal book of Esther here.
But the absence of God from Esther is not a bug, but a feature.
The central characters, Mordechai and Esther, the first characters ever to be called Jews in the Bible, seem to be deeply assimilated. Mordechai has no problem with encouraging his niece to marry the non-Jewish king. Their very names evoke the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar – it’s like a modern Jew being called Christopher. The question of integration and separation from the non-Jewish state is at the core of the story. The Jewish characters seem to see themselves as totally Persian, until Haman comes along and reminds them otherwise.
More over, the absence of God from the words of the main characters tells us an important lesson – what they believe matters less than what they do. Do they believe in God and the Torah? Maybe, but that’s not as important as the actions they take to save their people.
I’ve recently begun a series of short videos on our Instagram account – Ask the Rabbi videos where I address interesting questions. My first is about what it means to be a good Jew, and I think we can learn a lot from the first characters to be called Jews. Their actions reveal what kind of people they are, not their beliefs, or lack thereof.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been horrified by what is happening in Israel. Violence against peaceful Israelis is terrible, but it was somehow incredibly painful to see so-called religious Jews engaging in an anti-Palestinian pogrom, burning cars and houses. Empowered by a government that includes extreme right-wing elements and seeks to strip the courts of most of their power, the settlers felt that they were able to rampage through the Palestinian town, felt that that was what their religion called them to do.
The Purim story has, unfortunately, often been a source of support for such behaviour. After all, at the end of the story the Jewish people are described as getting revenge on their enemies, killing thousands of people across the nation. Last year on Purim, dozens of settlers broke into the Al-Aqsa mosque complex. Please God this year will be free from violence, but I’m very concerned. We need to own that our tradition, which gives many of us joy and meaning in our lives, can also be used as a justification for hate and violence.
It’s such a desecration of God’s name, a Chillul Hashem, that Smotrich and the settlers in Hawara claim to act in the name of our tradition, in the name of God. No matter how they present themselves, those who commit acts of violence and terror, who burns cars and threaten innocents, are not ‘good Jews’. What they believe is not as important as how they behave.
I don’t know how to deal with the new situation in Israel. I feel powerless to change anything, that my voice doesn’t matter, yet I feel I must say something, at least to you, my community.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zachor, the sabbath of remembering, when we are commanded to recall what Amalek did to us in the desert, attacking the weakest members of our society. Yet Amalek is not really a people, at least not any more, but a mindset. The villain of Esther, the wicked Haman, is a direct descendant of Amalek and adopts the same values of violence and aggression. That is what Amalek embodies.
On Monday night we’ll gather to read the Megillah, wearing masks and costumes to highlight the gap between appearances and reality. We’ll laugh and sing, and boo Haman with verve and vigour, but let’s try to remember that this Amalek mindset that exists within the Jewish soul as well. The Haman mindset is to say that being different is scary and bad, that they need to be put in their place and oppressed. Let us remember to try to blot out Haman from our own lives, and our own people, as well as in the world at large.
On Purim this year, let’s remember that it’s our actions and not our thoughts or intentions that really make us who we are.
Roni Tabick is the rabbi for New Stoke Newington Shul.